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Democrats jump on governor’s veto of court interpreters fund

SANTA FE – Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has for the second time vetoed legislation creating a separate fund in the judiciary for court interpreters, and Senate Democrats are suggesting it’s linked to a court fight over Spanish-speaking jurors that she lost while a prosecutor.

Martinez this week vetoed Senate Bill 210, which passed both the Senate and House unanimously in the recent legislative session.

It would have carved out a separate Language Access Fund – at no cost, according to the court system – from the existing Jury and Witness Fund.

The Administrative Office of the Courts told lawmakers that interpreter services and jury and witness services are managed separately. Having a fund for each would be more efficient and make it easier to audit their operations and get a better handle on the programs’ recurring shortfalls, the AOC said.

Martinez “pocket-vetoed” the same bill last year, without explanation. This year, she issued a veto message saying it is “unnecessary to create another fund … when the proposed functions of this new fund are, and should continue to be, paid for out of existing funds or the AOC’s general operating budget.”

Senate Democrats said in a statement Friday that the veto “puts focus” on Martinez’s unsuccessful efforts when she was district attorney in Doña Ana County to keep people who didn’t speak English off juries.

That dispute landed in the state Supreme Court when Martinez challenged a state District Court order that prospective jurors who spoke only Spanish could not be excused from jury duty for that reason.

Her office argued before the high court that interpreters could change the dynamics of jury deliberations and exert undue influence, and that providing interpreters would be cumbersome for courts.

The Supreme Court in January 2000 ruled against Martinez, saying the state Constitution prohibits the dismissal of jurors based on their inability to speak English. Subsequent rulings have reinforced that.

Asked whether Martinez’s veto had anything to do with the earlier case, her spokesman, Michael Lonergan, said only that it was “an absurd notion” and cited the explanation in the governor’s veto message.

Martinez this week also vetoed a second bill sought by the AOC, Senate Bill 97, creating a fund from which to pay judges pro tempore who are appointed to serve in state district courts. Her veto message was similar to the one with Senate Bill 210; she said the fund was unnecessary.